5 Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Source: hercampus.com 

Source: hercampus.com 

We've all heard of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, each household names for their involvement with the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. But have you heard of Nannie Helen Burroughs, Bayard Rustin or Ella Baker? Even though they stayed out of the limelight or simply predated the 1960s, the contributions of these individuals were just as important in fueling the movement as were the legendary historical figures we learned about in school. 

1. Nannie Helen Burroughs (1878 – 1961)

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

After graduating from high school, Nannie Helen Burroughs applied for a teaching position in the District of Columbia Public School District but was told she was "too dark." Only lighter skinned African-American teachers were considered for hiring. 

Despite this infuriating setback, Burroughs later became an educator, religious leader, civil rights activist and business woman.

In 1909, she founded a trade school for black high school and junior college aged girls with help from the National Baptist Convention. This school, the National Training School for Women and Girls, was the hallmark of her career. Common themes featured in the training included racial pride, respectability, work ethics and community activism.

2. Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Source: Library of Congress

Source: Library of Congress

An early mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin worked closely with King as a proofreader, ghostwriter, philosophy teacher and non-violence strategist. Most notably, he was a chief organizer for the March on Washington where King delivered his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech.

Although considered the "director" of the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin rarely served as a public spokesperson himself. Instead, he worked behind the scenes as an influential adviser, stemming in large part from public attacks against his homosexuality and a former affiliation with the Communist Party. 

3. Pauli Murray (1910-1985)

Source: LGBT History Month

Source: LGBT History Month

An overlooked female leader in the Civil Rights Movement, Pauli Murray coined the term "Jane Crow" to note the frequently neglected intersection of gender and race in conversations about inequality. She wrote States' Laws on Race and Color, a book sometimes described as the bible for civil rights lawyers.

In 1940, Murray was arrested for violating a state segregation law when she sat in the "whites-only" section of a Virginia bus - about fifteen years before Rosa Park's famous bus boycott. The incident spurred her passion for civil rights and desire to become a lawyer.

Murray not only achieved her goal, she became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale. Twelve years later in 1977, she also became the first black woman to be ordained a priest within the Episcopal Church. 

Struggling with issues related to her sexual and gender identity, some scholars argue that she would have identified as a transman or genderqueer if the terminology had existed during her time.

4. Ella Baker (1903-1986)

Source: Huffington Post

Source: Huffington Post

Without Ella Baker, there would be no Civil Rights Movement. Growing up, she listened to her grandmother's firsthand stories about slave revolts, including the time her grandmother was whipped for refusing to marry a man her slave master chose. These stories sparked her passion for social justice and equality. 

In 1931, she joined the Young Negros' Cooperative League and soon became the group's national director, supporting its mission to develop black economic power through collective planning. She taught courses in consumer education, labor history and African history for the Worker's Education Project and founded the Negro History Club at the Harlem Library in New York.

Baker advocated grassroots organizing, radical democracy and widespread local action as a means of change, which influenced the Civil Rights Movement and led to its success. She was very critical of professionalized, charismatic leadership as seen with Martin Luther King, Jr., saying:

"You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up the pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders." 

5. Claudette Colvin (1939-present)

Source: NPR

Source: NPR

A pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, Claudette Colvin was the first to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on bus to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama, but the NAACP did not publicize her protest against bus segregation. 

They considered her to be too "fiesty," "emotional" and "mouthy" to be a good symbol for the bus boycotts she ignited with her resistance. Soon after her arrest, Colvin became pregnant with a married man's child, further enhancing the NAACP's reasons for passing her over for Rosa Parks.

"My mother told me to be quiet about what I did," said Colvin. "She told me to let Rosa be the one: white people aren't  going to bother Rosa, they like her." 

At the time, she was a high school student and member of the NAACP Youth Council. While the lack of credit was disappointing, Colvin reportedly was not angry about it.

If you haven't already, check out our episode about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Remarkable Lives. Tragic Deaths, a Parcast Network podcast series.

Remarkable Lives. Tragic Deaths examines the lives and tragic deaths of people who changed history and influenced pop culture.